Situational Intelligence Keeps Crises from Turning Catastrophic

By Rob Schilling, Space-Time Insight

Threats from natural and man-made crises abound. Readers also may add a decaying infrastructure, an aging workforce and isolated commercial systems that aren’t able to communicate or integrate with each other to those threats. Suddenly, an untrimmed tree in the wrong place could trigger cascading outages across both traditional and smart grids. With timely and contextual information, however, utilities can take action to avoid or be better prepared for the next major threat.

Situational intelligence helps visualize severe weather.

The good news: Data is plentiful. Every utility has access to the data it needs to avert disasters—from SCADA, meter feeds, enterprise applications, energy management systems, weather forecasts and other third-party sources.

The challenge: The data resides in multiple systems in different formats, and the systems accessing this data are isolated from each other. While a business intelligence system may identify an outage has occurred, it does not have the ability to determine where the issue is taking place. And while an energy management system may detect the problem’s location, it doesn’t provide insight into causes or solutions.

As a result, making information available to the correct people has become an extremely perplexing task. To make matters worse, the data is siloed, and operators are hard-pressed to take corrective actions if they don’t have the facts.

Data’s Problematic Impact

With smart meters generating hundreds of data points per hour and synchrophasors spewing out microsecond measurements, many utilities are overwhelmed by data’s volume and complexity. Data comes from different systems, from internal and external sources, at different speeds and at different times. The information needs to be analyzed, correlated, understood in context and presented to users in a way that is easy to comprehend. Without successful completion of these tasks, when the next crisis occurs, how will a utility know:

  • Which resources and customers are impacted, how they are impacted and what exposure does the company, its employees and customers have to risk, safety and liability?
  • Which specific assets have failed, why have they failed and what can be done to minimize the impact of the failure?
  • What triage is required, what remedial actions must be taken and who needs to be informed?

If a storm has caused widespread outages, how does a dispatcher determine which area should be addressed first? He might consider emergency services, such as hospitals, being the top priority. Or perhaps the areas with the largest businesses (and biggest revenue generators) should be first on the list. There is no right answer, and every organization will have its own business rules for handling these situations.

Dispatchers can visually access traffic conditions by overlaying information on the display.

The point: Without consistent mechanisms to access and correlate information, utilities are operating blind. An organization’s inability to quickly grasp and react to an unfolding situation means that critical decisions will be delayed, made incorrectly or simply not made at all—putting property, lives and revenue at risk.

Situational Intelligence

Many utilities are meeting this challenge head-on with the introduction of situational intelligence software into their operating environment. At its root, situational intelligence takes advantage of major recent advances in multi-dimensional geospatial software, big data and complex event processing to bring data into sharp focus. It melds the fields of computer science, statistics and analytics. Situational intelligence uses visualization techniques to make massive data amounts easily accessible and quickly understandable.

Visualizing a problem geospatially makes a significant difference to an operator’s ability to comprehend a situation. Rather than scrolling through tabular data or looking at traditional line diagrams to spot issues, geospatial users can take in the scope of a problem within seconds. Various visualization techniques are used in situational intelligence applications to draw attention to a problem:

  • A geospatial display showing the placement of power lines might be color-coded to indicate points of stress or failure,
  • Alerts displayed on screen or delivered to users’ mobile devices might raise awareness of an approaching storm, and
  • The scope of an outage might be easier to comprehend when an operator can drill down to a precise map location to identify the source.

While there’s nothing new about plotting data points on a map, situational intelligence is more than just putting pretty pictures on a screen. It’s also about correlating different pieces of information, helping users understand and analyze the significance of what is displayed, and guiding them through the processes and actions that are required.

Situational intelligence systems have three stages.

Stage NO. 1: Visualization

In this stage, geospatial displays help identify that a problem could occur or has occurred. Business rules included in the application define criteria that should be flagged. These conditions might trigger color changes on a display or cause alerts to be sent to the appropriate users or mobile devices.

Even without specific rules or alarms, seeing the position and direction of an approaching storm or hurricane makes a difference. Operators can, with a quick glance at the screen, take in the severity of a situation. Compare this with browsing through data in a spreadsheet to spot an issue, and it’s easy to understand the immediate benefit situational intelligence provides. Reducing the time it takes for operators to react to a situation means more time to avert a crisis or faster deployment of emergency crews.

Stage No. 2: Analysis

Having identified a problem area, situational intelligence plays an important role in determining the issue’s scope and cause. By zooming in on specific regions and further down to street level on a geospatial display, operators might identify the source. Then, operators can pull up pertinent engineering diagrams and information pertaining to the resource from enterprise systems.

Utilities can visualize a storm’s impact on assets.

It might also be helpful to view events leading to an outage. The time component of situational intelligence gives operators insight into how the problem occurred. Using the geospatial display to view the activity over the previous hour might reveal, for instance, that lightning was in the area and might be responsible for the outage.

Stage No. 3: Acting

Potentially the most important part of situational intelligence initiatives is prompt action. Most commonly, operators will have a set of procedures to follow given the circumstance. These might be notifications to other groups or organizations, the initiation of service requests through interfaces to a field service system or the completion of required reports and other paperwork.

Every utility has to contemplate the worst outcome when a crisis threatens infrastructure. Whether created by hurricane, fire or falling tree, outages put lives and property at risk. The speed of threat detection and neutralization can make a difference, but the volume and diversity of data must be addressed.

Situational intelligence might help address that data. Whether alerting operators to asset failures, facilitating a rapid response to outages, or ensuring compliance with regulations, the ability to visually integrate and correlate information from multiple sources in real-time helps utilities make informed decisions.

Rob Schilling is Space-Time Insight’s CEO, responsible for the company’s strategic direction. He joined Space-Time Insight (“> from SAP North America.

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